By Patrick Coughlin
The basic purpose of fire departments is to stop structure fires before they grow into conflagrations. The frequency of structure fires has steadily decreased over the past four decades, and emergency medical calls are now the most frequent fire department response. The National Fire Protection Association reports that medical and rescue calls account for 64 percent of fire department emergency work, and fire calls account for only 4 percent.
This shift in demand presents a dilemma. Trimming staff to what is needed for the more frequent EMS responses will cut fire department costs. With too few firefighters on duty, however, the structure fires that do occur are more likely to claim lives and spread to other buildings.
A growing number of fire departments have resolved the dilemma by adopting the staffing model used by the U.S. military. The armed forces augment their cadres of career personnel with individuals who sign up to serve for a limited time. The military attracts them by offering valuable incentives, the most popular being a free college education.
More than 350 fire departments now use the military staffing model and augment smaller crews with firefighters who sign up for a specific time period; the typical commitment is four years. The most popular incentive is a paid college education; other options include free housing.
The cost savings are substantial. On average, fire departments can fill two firefighter positions for the cost of one career firefighter. In addition to lower salary costs, the staffing model reduces pension burdens. One half of the firefighters in these programs choose other careers after finishing their service.
Staffing for Structure Fires
In order to effectively handle structure fires, fire departments need a network of stations that enable pumpers and ladder trucks to quickly reach fire scenes. The distance between stations is dictated by the number of firefighters and apparatus needed to stop structure fires before they spread to other buildings.
Structure fires present several immediate challenges at the same time, including stopping fire growth, searching for victims, and opening a path for heat and fire gases to escape. Each of the actions requires enough firefighters to perform these critical tasks simultaneously or in close coordination.
Stopping the fire, for example, requires two or three firefighters to stretch a hose from a pumper to the entry point and prepare to enter. While they do that, a pump operator sets up to pump water to the attack hose. At the same time, another team of firefighters connects a water supply hose between the pumper and a hydrant.
When the attack team is ready to enter, another team must be ready to open a ventilation path. This coordinated activity keeps the flames and hot gases from rolling back over the attack team and any trapped victims. While all of that is happening, another team begins searching for victims.
As Figure 1 illustrates, effective performance of those tasks simultaneously and in close coordination is manpower intensive. Attempting to handle structure fires with smaller crews increases property loss, makes civilian deaths and injuries more likely, and puts firefighters at greater risk.
A medical study highlighted the increased risk to firefighter when crews were smaller. Analysts monitored firefighter heart rates among varying-sized crews during simulated house fires. One group arrived on the scene with four firefighters on each apparatus, and all of the apparatus arrived in time to let the firefighters perform critical tasks in close coordination. The other groups had two or three firefighters.
The results showed that heart rates among the first group went to the maximum level, but periodically decreased. Heart rates of the latter group stayed at maximum levels throughout the exercise.
Not a New Concept
The military staff model has been used by fire departments for quite some time now. One option—hiring college students as temporary firefighters—is neither a new nor untested concept. The College Park, Maryland, fire department, for example, created its program in 1947. The number of such programs in the United States grew steadily during the 1990s and has grown exponentially since then.
My personal database of fire departments in the United States that use temporary firefighters, based on periodic Internet searches, shows that of the more than 350 fire departments known to use college students as firefighters, half of them are career or combination. The other half are volunteer. The smallest departments have one station, and the largest has 47.
Case history. The Auburn, Alabama, fire division adopted the military staffing model in 1989. It began by augmenting its staff of 50 career firefighters with nine temporary firefighters. The division now employs 100 firefighters, and 60 of them are temporary.
Temporary service periods range from two to six years and average four years. The six-year term allows firefighters to stay in the program long enough to complete graduate school.
The model’s cost-efficiency allows Auburn to staff each apparatus with five-person crews. Career members fill two of the positions, and temporary firefighters fill the remaining three.
Auburn requires that its temporary firefighters have the same qualifications as their career counterparts. They must pass the same physical ability test and complete the same basic training before being assigned to an engine or ladder company.
The fire division’s training officers are qualified to conduct the firefighter and EMS training in-house. The training lasts 15 to16 weeks, and produces 10 to 15 firefighters each year to replace those who have completed their degrees.
The Auburn fire division provides free living quarters in three of its five stations. It pays full tuition for firefighters who maintain a 2.5 grade point average. The division also pays the firefighters a modest hourly wage when they are on duty, and their benefit package is similar to that of the career members.
Auburn’s compensation plan makes it the most robust military-model staffing program in the country. Auburn Fire Division Chief John Lankford said that internal analysis showed that the division operates for 20 percent less than if it employed all career firefighters.2
Implementing such a change has its challenges, but Auburn’s experience shows that the challenges need not be daunting.
When Auburn switched to military-style staffing, the leadership faced several challenges. The firefighters already distrusted management due to suspected cronyism and favoritism in promotions under the past fire chief.
The division had just transferred its paramedic service to a local hospital, which left fewer opportunities for advancement. The new change and already low trust level pushed firefighters’ anxiety levels to new highs.
Cortez Lawrence, Ph.D., an education specialist at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, was deputy director of the public safety department at the time and guided the fire division through the adaption process. He began by creating a team leader position for each shift.
This position’s primary role was to manage the new firefighters’ schedules to avoid conflicts between duty hours and class schedules. Team leaders also helped integrate the new firefighters into the division.
The new staffing model left firefighters worried that they might be immediately replaced and that the college students would eventually take all of their jobs. The city eased their concerns by agreeing that all replacements would solely be due to attrition.
Chief Lawrence also assured them that the fire division would continue to fill its officer positions with career personnel. The same was true for all technical positions like hazmat and special rescue technicians.
Response to the change was mixed, according to Lawrence. Some of the firefighters, primarily those who were attending college themselves, were willing to give the new staffing model a chance. Others remained skeptical, but eventually accepted the new staffing arrangement.
Departments of all types and sizes now use the military staffing model. The scope of individual programs varies according to each fire department’s needs and resources.
While the potential savings in both salaries and pension burdens is readily apparent, the programs do more than save money. They also create more college opportunities for community residents.